Poison Ivy: Queer Adventures In Feminism And Ecology

Poison Ivy is a hero.

For me and a lot of readers.

In Batgirl Annual #2 Gail Simone quoted philosopher Albert Camus to explain who Poison Ivy/Pamela Isley is. The character says: “Just the act of being Pamela was an act of Rebellion*1. Gail Simone confirmed that this is a reference to the famous Camus quote “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”.

 

Also from Camus’ Rebel: “Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right… The rebel … says yes and no simultaneously… In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself*2.

 

Pretty good description of Poison Ivy, right?

Robert Gill – Batgirl Annual 2

 

She is a rebel. She is a queer woman in STEM, a single mother of three, feminist, environmentalist, activist who in the past ten years has saved Gotham and even the whole world more times than many heroes.

 

And despite having more than 50 years of comic history, she still doesn’t have a book, a solo or team one.

 

In fact, as of the December 2018 DC solicitations, she seems to be missing from every book, even from the Harley Quinn solo ongoing where she was co-starring. Α book that got awarded by GLAAD for including her and focusing on her relationship with Harley Quinn. I have tried to contact the current writer of the book but unfortunately, I couldn’t get an answer.

 

And despite fan questions, Poison Ivy is the one character DC doesn’t acknowledge, even at cons. The only answer we get is either no plans or silence. And to make matter worse she appears to have been “fridged” in the comic book series Heroes In Crisis. Perhaps this will change in future issues but unfortunately, it looks like she’s one of the victims.

 

You have probably seen tweets and posts using the #PoisonIvyLeague hashtag in various social media and internet sites.

Francis Manapul – Batgirl

Hi, I’m ivygirl851, Rose to my friends and I’m part of an international group of fans, readers, artists, writers, bloggers and journalists who are trying to push Poison Ivy into the spotlight. As a hero.

 

Why as a hero? Because at this point, it makes sense. The last few years Poison Ivy has:

  1. Joined the Birds of Prey and saved Gotham from Talons *3 *4 
  2. Saved Gotham from deadly chemicals *5 and from a dangerous neurotoxin *6,
  3. Cleaned up Gotham’s pollution and literally grew a family *7.
  4. Saved the planet and billions of humans from a deadly virus *8
  5. Joined the Birds of Prey one again and saved every man in Gotham *9.
  6. Had a very emotional story arc in Francis Manapul’s Trinity, a story about motherhood, family, hope, and nature vs nurture. 

Still, it seems DC can’t give the character a break and instead of giving the character a chance to grow and shine like i.e Catwoman and Harley Quinn, her two fellow Sirens are given, she gets… well, very few things.

The character is still being treated as a C-lister and her recent appearances position her as a villain (Batman and Damage) are filled with editors notes trying to explain her apparent change in character. And in the process, various explanations have been given. The past few years no one at DC can decide whether her actions are a result of:

1. Seasonal affective disorder
2. Her character
3. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
4. Guilt
5. The “Green” controlling her
6. Dissociative identity disorder
7. Greed
8. All of the above
9. None of the above
10. Bad editorial communication

If you chose number 8 then DC has a serious problem with understanding some very basic concepts about mental health. If you decide to go with number 10, Poison Ivy has at best 2 -5 appearances every year. They are NOT that many to follow. Also, DC can’t seem to agree whether Ivy is a hero, a villain, an antihero, an anti-villain. Whether she wants to murder all humans, or just the men, or everyone except the kids, or nobody.

Roge Antonio – Batgirl and the Birds of Prey

 

This inconsistency and the lack of either a solo or a team book where Poison Ivy can appear on a monthly basis (and evolve as a character) is frustrating. And it is frustrating because at the same time as a fan I know that many DC creators want to focus on characters that share characteristics that define Poison Ivy: environmentalism, activism, feminism. But despite meeting the qualifications for this part, she rarely seems to get it. Like the talented kid who never gets picked to play a game with the popular kids at school.

 

I feel there is a disconnection between what DC wants to do with the character and what readers want to read.

 

So what does Poison Ivy mean to the readers? And do the current stories she appears in represent what readers want to read with what they get? I made an open question to twitter and these are some of the replies:

 

“Hope and healing. As corny as it sounds. As someone who suffered a great loss last year, Ivy had become important to me for a fertility symbol.”

 

“Poison Ivy is a progressive character, important representation at a time when civil rights are being eroded across the board when the environmentalism and activism she represents is constantly questioned by an anti-intellectual and anti-feminist culture.”

 

“Ivy as a character represents fighting for what you believe in, and the betterment of the entire world, no matter what anyone says.”

 

“Poison Ivy was the first outspoken feminist I saw in the comics – and the first fictional character at all to communicate that sometimes attention just isn’t *welcome* let alone desired. When left to her own desires, she keeps to herself and tends her plants and even starts to reach out and help others – for a villain, it always interested me that the best way to ‘defeat’ her was really to just leave her alone and let her do her own thing.”

 

“Ivy represents defending the world not just from supervillains, but from the dangers of deforestation, pollution, and overall environmental irresponsibility.”


“Poison Ivy represents my own struggle to be myself in an unfair world where I’m denied an identity”

 

“Hi! For me, Poison Ivy represents a way of being a woman navigating the world on her own terms —literally able to nurture and control nature around her to take care of others and to protect herself. It’s important to me that she is also clearly defined in most iterations as a scientist — she’s a Ph.D. — and her intelligence and self-possession give me a model of how to act in this world as a powerful and independent adult woman. It’s also important that she embodies a close connection to nature and the environment— she doesn’t need to sacrifice this part of her nature. In fact, she gains power by embracing her connection with nature (which feels very feminine to me) instead of trying to suppress it and fit into a male-dominated world”

“She represents hope. Hope that things can change to the better.”

 

“”Poison Ivy is a manifestation of female energy: as originally conceived Ivy is female sexuality, albeit objectified for the male gaze then and often still; Ivy is Lilith rejecting the patriarchy and living life on her terms; Ivy embodies Kali in the goddess’ aspects as both Divine Mother and destroyer of evil; and as scientist Ivy is a manifestation of Sophia, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Is it any wonder that she eludes most male writers?”

 

“She’s anti-establishment in a world that sorely needs it.”

 

“Societal and environmental issues have led to a generation of young people demanding equal rights and a sustainable treatment of our world. We want to live on this planet longer and under better conditions. What we need is a strong, female role model to look up to more than ever. Poison Ivy is an old character who never gained high popularity but with changing ideas of the young generation, she could rise up in relevancy. She is a feminist, queer, an environmentalist and she fights for what is right. She could become a symbol of a revolution which would lead to a higher market value of the dc character. Furthermore, she has a high potential  for comics and movies and with good storytelling and character development could become one of the most popular characters in the dc universe.”

 

“She means redemption. No matter the past, or what actions you may have taken, it matters what you do in the now, in spite of your past”

 

“To me, she represents wild, untamed feminism. I always liked the idea that she thrived and grew and had all of this vast power.”

 

“Pamela Isley is a case of passion in the extreme, a brilliant scientist betrayed by corporate America and a queer woman who has been vilified by the patriarchy for decades.”

 

“She is both a caring mother protecting those who most need it and earth’s fury, punishing those who harm it and others but from an external point of view, she is also the representation of the effects of willful ignorance. Everyone ignores her warnings, dismiss her expertise and herself and instead of dealing with τhe uncomfortable truth she spoke, they prefer to commit her to a mental institution… and considering her environmental warnings proved real… well..”

 

“For me, Poison Ivy is the embodiment of nature, an archetype of a human in symbiosis with the environment. She is also a symbol of power, strength, intelligence, and femininity. She owns everything that she is without apology. To me, that’s inspiring.”


“Poison Ivy is brilliant; she has a power that is highly underrated (often underwritten & oversimplified); she has a mind that embraces both scientific endeavor and supernatural insight; she is beautiful and passionate and strong, refusing ever to allow herself to be abused or mistreated. With the right writers, Pamela Isley is always charismatic, engaging and a great deal of fun to read.”

“I think for me, Ivy represents 2 things: reality and redemption. Ivy can see what’s really going on with humanity and our planet, and she isn’t afraid to call out the bullshit or the cover-ups. Sometimes she does make questionable decisions because she thinks it will help (sometimes it does) and she’s labeled for them, as many of us. But her mission has never been stunted. She’s learned from her mistakes and been given the opportunity to prove that she does, indeed, want to save our planet and every living thing on it (see N52 BOP, Rebirth Batgirl, and Batgirl & the BOP) and she IS going to save us. Really, she’s the only one who can, and we need to give her that chance (symbolically, of course).”

 

“Poison Ivy aka Pamela Isley is a character which to me is so multi-dimensional that understanding her in one sense is not easy. She is a character I very much relate to in the way that she is someone who wants to protect the plant life and me as a person who loves trees and natures relates to it very highly. Its because these things are the ones that ensure the survival of humanity and if these are gone then well humanity’s time is over. So in a way Poison Ivy is a hero we need. It’s sad to see her being portrayed as an eco-terrorist at times when she is not so. Another thing i relate to Ivy is that she is a queer woman and doesn’t take shit from anyone about who she likes. And I like that courage and not caring what others think of you especially as a Native-American. One other thing I appreciate is how dearly she loves this crazy snowball called Harley and their relationship as highlighted in Injustice comics is a healthy one and as a lesbian really warms we up seeing such couples in comics where there is a dearth of such couples. Another one is she is connected to the green, the life-force of the planet sort of. This may seem a repetitive point but is unique because it shows she is an elemental and one of the most powerful beings in DCU and thus inspires me. The way she has been portrayed in recent times is a bit of a let down by DC writers and editorial but hopefully, they will come around. To summarize, Pamela means a lot to me in different ways because she is such a complex and multi-dimensional character and its hard to come across such characters and she continues to inspire me every day. I hope you too.”

 

In times of crisis, archetypes can arise to help negotiate (and understand) problems. Popular culture as a manifestation of a group’s collective unconscious is a site where these archetypes may arise *10.

Poison Ivy is not just a character but an assemblage of the ideas and archetypes described by the readers above. The character offers answers in questions about feminism, ecology, activism, equality, the queer identity, mental health. But these answers even though they are part of the identity of the character, they rarely appear in comics/stories.

 

Poison Ivy is being presented as a zealot. A female enemy of reason that even though she is a scientist, acts in a nonscientific – emotional “feminine” way in contrast with Batman’s “male” logic and reason. This dichotomy appears to change in the stories I mention earlier in the article but it comes back stronger than ever in Batman 42,42,43 and Damage 4,5,6 where she takes over the world by mind-controlling every person so she can redeem herself (?) for a crime she thinks she committed earlier in her life and she attacks field workers helping Gorilla Grodd and the Green to take over the earth from humans.

 

In both these stories, her mental instability is used as a plot point to explain her actions but we can easily draw a parallel here:
Male characters = reason/ science over emotion
Female characters = emotion over reason

Jason Fabok – Detective Comics

Why is this happening? Because if in the case of Poison Ivy she puts science and reason over emotion (she is a scientist after all) then she can’t be used as a villain. So a stereotype is used (albeit in a subtly distorted way by incorporating mental health as a factor or in Damage the influence of the Green) to twist the character into an enemy or reason and therefore, a villain.

 

Plumwood argues that the patriarchal imagination’s opinion regarding the non-rational is central to the domination of women and nonhuman nature *11.

 

“All of one’s relationships with others are contingent upon one’s self-image. When people define themselves in terms of reason, they place themselves in opposition with everything nonrational, the biggest category of non-rationality being nature. Nature becomes conflated with the non- rational, and both are seen as antithetical to the self. People who define themselves strictly in terms of reason will invariably cause environmental damage and seek to exploit “people”– including non-human people– who supposedly aren’t rational.”

Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin

In The Dangerous Sex (1964) H.R. Hayes argues that men of virtually all societies throughout recorded history have feared women’s erotic (and not only) power *12. Rather than acknowledging their own immaturity and that the problem was within themselves, men have instead attributed horrific characteristics to women. In primal cultures, shamans work these fears into social systems; Hayes contends that artists serve a similar function in contemporary society, providing pictures to give form to male anxieties. Primitive models suggested that women presented a threat to men which was magical in nature, but “it is in the Greek and Christian mythology that misogyny it transformed and its basis is disguised by an ethical rationalization”.

 

The male anxiety that we are dealing here is a queer, feminist, environmentalist, activist character who is also incredibly sexy and in control of her eroticism and sexuality … could be right. And the hero, Batman (who is the ultimate male power fantasy) could be wrong. It would be nice to note here that Batman is often represented as a poster boy for the Protestant work ethic: hard work, discipline, and frugality. It would be just too easy to point the parallel here. Batman and Poison Ivy. Adam and Eve. The temptation of knowledge, the eroticism of Nature.

 

So what? Why is this a bad thing?

 

I think it’s time we try a different narrative with Poison Ivy. I say, let the character grow. The character is right now at peak popularity and her transition from a rarely used villain/antihero to a character that gets the spotlight is easier and more meaningful than ever. I’m not asking from DC to turn her into Wonder Woman. I like her edge. But she has to move from being a villain/side character to being a protagonist. And don’t worry, sometimes it’s good for Batman to be wrong.

Stjepan Sejic – Fanart for #PoisonIvyLeague

 

As a closing sentence I’d like to post here the words of a very dear friend:


“Poison Ivy League has become a friend circle I never had before and one I never knew I wanted or needed…but now the idea of not having the League terrifies me. You see, Ivy is a wonderful character, it’s true, and she is the driving force that brought us all together and keeps us interacting, but the League has grown beyond a simple fandom advocating for a comic book character. The League makes it ok to be a female, LGBTQIA+, PoC, disabled, neurodivergent, and/or a host of other non-white/straight/male descriptors comic fan. The League is a catch-all for those of us who aren’t welcome in the typical online discourse on a wide range of ‘geek’ subjects. League members are welcoming, smart, dedicated, active, engaged, and I can honestly and genuinely say some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet online. I feel welcomed here.”

Dustin Nguyen – Lil Gotham

“My opinion matters. My voice is heard. Ivy just attracts outsiders. People who don’t belong. We’re like the park orphans, and she’s our home, the League is our park. I see everything from children to grandparents and extremely devout religious girls to sex workers and professional Dommes admiring her and being a part of our fandom. At a time when movements dedicated to gatekeeping people like us out (comicsgate) and the big comic corporate interests seem determined to drive us away and appease them, #PoisonIvyLeague is absolutely necessary as a counter to that sort of hate. Of all the fandoms I know, we’re one of the few who can honestly say our favorite character would be proud of us. That makes me happy. We may be in a low place, Ivy possibly dead/fridged and not appearing in anything, but we will grow back. We always grow back. They don’t have what it takes to stamp us out. I’d like to thank everyone for making this happen and allowing me to be a part of it.”

CITATIONS: 

  1. Batgirl Annual Vol 4 #2 “When Pamela Gets Blue”
  2. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Albert Camus
  3. Birds of Prey: Trouble in Mind
  4. Birds of Prey: Your Kiss Might Kill
  5. Batman: Detective Comics, Volume 3: Emperor Penguin
  6. Batman: Detective Comics, Volume 5: Gothtopia
  7. Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death
  8. All-Star Batman Vol. 2 Ends of the Earth
  9. Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #17
  10. Green Goddess returns: Batman’s Poison Ivy as a symbol of emerging ecofeminist consciousness – Checkett, John-David 2001
  11. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature – Val Plumwood 1993
  12. The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil – H.R.Hayes 1964

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IvyGirl851

IvyGirl851

I love comics, visits to the library, volunteer work and picking my nose. But most importantly, picking things and ideas apart.
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I love comics, visits to the library, volunteer work and picking my nose. But most importantly, picking things and ideas apart.

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2 Comments

  1. I absolutely agree with you that there is a lot of really egregious misogyny and extremely bad mental health messages both in the origins of the character, and the way she is currently being treated by DC editorial, and many writers. I would very much like to see a take on the character that divests itself of that and treats her with the dignity she deserves.

    That said, I can’t agree with the main thrust of your arguments because most of the stories you point to as foundational for the reinterpretation of the character, I regard as missteps that never should have been printed in the first place.

    Poison Ivy ought to be and remain a “villain”, not because she is irrational, ill, or wrong about anything she believes (she is none of those things, she is a genius) but because her perspective does not in any way privilege humans above other animals, and therefore her loyalty to the flora and fauna of the planet as a whole places her directly at odds with the existence of human civilization. Which when you consider the degree to which we warp the global environment just by existing, let alone the mass destruction of Earth’s biodiversity we perpetrate in the pursuit of short-term profits… who’s the real villain here? Billions of people will die if she gets her way – but hundreds of billions of organisms are murdered every year that she doesn’t. Who wouldn’t be strident? Who in her position wouldn’t be doing everything they possibly could?

    It doesn’t mean she’s some indiscriminate killer, or that she can’t have positive relationships with individual humans, but it does mean there’s no reason for her to save or defend Gotham City, or most of the things heroes think are valuable. If Poison Ivy were as powerful as the Swamp Thing, human civilization by rights ought to end in a matter of days. Since she’s not (if only because that’s a story you can only tell once) it’ll be the hard work of years for her to return everything to the idylls of the Paleolithic. Despoil the environment badly enough that it stands out though, or somehow threaten the entire world… now you’ve got an enemy you can ill afford. On such occasions, when it’s in her interest, she will definitely work with “heroes” or give them valuable help, and she knows it doesn’t pay to stab anyone in the back when she could be building rapport instead -she is smart, patient and confident. But in her ultimate goal she is uncompromising. Ivy is Ra’s al-Ghul without the narcissistic patriarchal pretensions.

    Not every great character needs to be a protagonist – an antagonist with spesific, thought-through motivations, depth and style is also hugely valuable.

    Reply
    • Hi. First of all thank you for commenting. I’m not sure you’ve closely read my article because it gives answers to all your points. You say if she was as powerful as Swamp Thing, Human Civilization would end. Why doesn’t this happen with Swamp Thing? Swamp Thing who is deeper into the Green’s consciousness than Ivy? The stories you say are missteps are some of the most critically acclaimed and important stories with the character. I think people are confusing comic book Poison ivy with Uma Thurman in Batman and Robin. I did a lot of research for this article. I have read every Poison Ivy story and a lot of her appearances. Most of her appearances. There are very few stories that she acts like you describe. And these stories are (I don’t want to be impolite here) very bad stories. Science doesn’t work like this. Ivy is still human. More human than Alec. I don’t understand the need of a Ra’s with breasts when Ra’s is there to fill the misanthrope nihilist zealot trope.
      I suggest to read my article again and pay attention to what I’m trying to say. the stories are a tiny part of my argument. In fact my main argument has nothing to do with the stories I mention and can stand on it’s own. I’d also suggest this article: http://www.nerdspan.com/poison-ivy-a-cycle-of-life-and-death/ Which also expands some of the issues I mention. Also if you have access to a library, John Checketts paper is a good place to start too.

      Reply

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